Regular readers of this blog know that the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe is not normally something I would write about or comment on, but it's not every day one of the film legend's pallbearers calls you out of the blue to tell you about how he once held Monroe's corpse in his hands and managed to snag a lock of the dead woman's hair.
That's what happened a couple of days ago when Allan Abbott phoned me to let me know that he'd finally finished his memoir about his days in the funeral industry, when the company he co-founded Abbott & Hast was the premier funeral support company in Southern California.
Why did he call me? Well, a couple of years back, I was doing some research for a story and ended up speaking to Abbott via phone. After regaling me with stories of his participation in the funerals of such stars as Natalie Wood, Karen Carpenter, and Clark Gable, to name a few, he mentioned that he was working on his memoir Pardon My Hearse, and would let me know when he finished it.
True to his word, the 74 year-old Abbott, who now lives in Monterey, California, left me a voice message last week, alerting me that he had finished his book and was shopping around for a publisher.
Naturally, the 50th anniversary of Monroe's death came up as we chatted, and he told me the morbid but fascinating tale of how he came into direct contact with Monroe's lifeless body, which he also helped dress.
"Clarence Pierce, one of the owners [of what's now Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary] called me and asked, `Can you get out to our Westwood facility as fast as you can and do whatever needs to be done to get things going on Marilyn's service? '" Abbott recalled.
"Well, I can do everything, but I'm not an embalmer," Abbott said to Pierce.
Pierce told Abbott not to worry, that he was sending a mortician to deal with Monroe's body, as it was in very bad shape due to the extensive autopsy done by the Los Angeles County Coroner, following Monroe's death on August 5, 1962, supposedly from a drug overdose.
"You would not recognize her," Abbott related of what he saw. "She looked so ghastly horrible. It was unbelievable."
By the time he arrived, the facility was already mobbed with reporters and fans of the dead sex symbol. Abbott quickly took charge of the situation, calling the Pinkerton detective agency to provide a squad of armed, uniformed guards for the ceremony.
As his company provided limousines, hearses, flowers and a variety of other services to mortuaries in Los Angeles, Abbott was used to celebrity funerals. He possesses a near-photographic memory, which was enhanced that day by his Russian-born bride, a Marilyn fan, who ordered him to be a walking tape recorder and camera so he could relay all of the details to her.
These details become particularly gruesome when he relates how he came to own a lock of Monroe's hair.
"[The mortician] cut some hair off the nape of her neck," he recalled. "And had me hold her on her side....Then he made this marquise diamond cut incision on the back of her neck and...kind of did a baseball stitch and pulled it together [to make it look better]."
Other than that lock of hair, Abbott came by another peculiar piece of Marilyn memorabilia: a small set of falsies that were delivered by Monroe's executrix along with other items of clothing for the body.
The falsies were of no use as Monroe's chest had caved in from the autopsy. Mary Hamrock, a partner in the mortuary, ultimately stuffed cotton into the dress to give Monroe's corpse a bosom. Still, Abbott wondered what good such a tiny set of falsies would have been to a curvaceous bombshell like Monroe.
The star's hairdresser Sidney Guilaroff and her makeup man Alan Snyder came in to work on the body, so Abbott asked Snyder about the falsies, which Abbott retrieved from the trash as a souvenir for his wife.
"For the last couple of years of her life, [Monroe] noticed that her breasts were starting to sag from gravity a little bit," Abbott recalled Snyder explaining. "So she would put on a bra, put on a sweater, and then take these little falsies and shove them up between the bra and the sweater."
Abbott says he sold the lock of Monroe's hair long ago. He sold the falsies after his wife passed away, but he's since bought back this odd piece of Monroe memorabilia.
Something else strange about the dressing of Monroe's corpse: The executrix said Monroe never wore underwear, and so the corpse went to the crypt without store-bought undergarments. In their place was a makeshift diaper that had been fashioned for her by someone at the medical examiner's office.
Along with his partner Ronald Hast, Abbott served as one of Monroe's pallbearers. He said he stood at the left front of the casket, with his partner behind him. He can be seen in footage from that day as well as in still photographs.
Only those with an invitation were allowed into the small chapel, and Abbott, who was in his 20s at the time, checked off the names of each person entering to make sure they'd been invited.
I asked Abbott what he recalled of Monroe's one-time husband Joe DiMaggio, who arranged for the funeral. Abbott told me of how he had brought his wife to the chapel the day before the funeral, where he hoped to sneak her in after the viewing was supposed to end at 9 p.m.
But DiMaggio lingered long after the viewing was scheduled to be over.
"We could see him in the chapel with his very small entourage, all guys," Abbott remembered. "He would stand and look at her for a long time, then he would walk out into the cemetery and start crying. Then he'd compose himself and walk back in and stand at the casket, and look at her again."
DiMaggio was Monroe's second husband, and by all accounts he loved her. According to DiMaggio's memorial website, the Yankee Clipper "had a dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her crypt for twenty years."
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The stuff of legend, and yet, Monroe's funeral is just one of many that Abbott details in his book, which I'm eager to read. I may have to wait a bit, however, as Abbott freely admits that he's not computer savvy, and his computer-literate son is away at the moment, so he can't e-mail me any excerpts till next week.
Before I let Abbott go, I wondered if he thought Monroe had been murdered. I "Absolutely," he answered without pause. "No question about it."
Abbot believes Monroe was given an intentional overdose in order to keep quiet her affairs with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby Kennedy.
"I'm not saying that either Jack or Bobby actually gave any instructions to anyone to do that," he stated. "But there were huge international implications [if the affairs had been made public]...I think [certain people] wanted to keep it quiet. And that's what I think the motivation was to murder her."